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The First Fixed Photographic Images

The dream of photography may be as old as the human eye, which, in processing colors and shapes for the brain, essentially does what a camera does. The first evidence of any kind of mechanical visual reproduction, however, comes from Saudi Arabia, where unknown caravan riders noticed, at a time now lost, that a hole in their tent projected the inverted image of a passing camel onto the opposite wall. In 989 A.D. the Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan described this accidental invention and gave it a name: the camera obscura. The principle of the camera obscura had arrived in Europe by 1267, when the English philosopher-scientist Roger Bacon published his "Perspectiva" and "De Multiplicatione Specierum."

The Italian architect Giambattista della Porta is credited by some with inventing the first camera, although this is largely a matter of defining the word. As far is known, he built the first working camera obscura, which he used beginning in 1569 to project the images of unsuspecting guests into a special room for the delight of a few select spectators -- the first spy camera. Della Porta was also the first to suggest that artists could use a camera obscura to trace images onto a surface, and to use a concave mirror placed at a 45-degree angle, which rendered his subjects in their proper perspective.

Others followed fast on the heels of della Porta, including Robert Hooke of England, who designed a portable camera obscura that ended up in the hands of mathematician Johannes Kepler in 1600. By the 18th century, many painters were using the camera obscura, or variations on it, to capture the subtle nuances of the human form, especially that most challenging of human expressions: the smile.

Meanwhile, chemists studying the properties of chemical compounds were laying the groundwork for fixing images. Key among them was Carl Scheele, who in expanding on the findings of alchemists discovered that, under the right conditions, light would turn silver solutions black. The ability to fix an image onto a surface, however, only began in earnest with the efforts of Josiah Wedgwood, a British manufacturer of porcelain and fine china.

In 1773 Wedgwood was commissioned by Catherine the Great to produce a line of china decorated with famous scenes from England. Using a camera obscura purchased in London through a friend, Wedgwood attempted -- and failed -- to burn these images into the plates. Josiah's son Thomas took up the cause from there. Thomas Wedgwood had studied the relation between heat and light at the University of Edinburgh but in 1797, finding this knowledge to be insufficient, turned to his friend Humphry Davy for help.

A native of Cornwall, Humphry Davy was a poet, chemist, and electrical pioneer who eventually rose to fame as a charismatic lecturer at London's Royal Institution. In 1799, when his greatest acclaim lay ahead of him, Davy attended the Pneumatic Institute, an organization in Clifton, England, founded by Dr. Thomas Beddoes and dedicated to exploring the effects of various gasses. While primarily a scientific undertaking, the Pneumatic Institute was also a favorite haunt of Romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who dropped in at times to take in the "airs."

Davy seems to have taken the Romantic impulse in stride. While at the Pneumatic Institute, he isolated nitrous oxide and looked upon it as something close to divine inspiration. He was known to alternate between large doses of nitrous oxide and wine, and at one point conspired with the steam-engine inventor James Watt to build a nitrous-oxide chamber, in which he could fully absorb this marvelous new vapor. Once, on emerging from his chamber, Davy exclaimed: "Nothing exists but thoughts. The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasure and pain." Another time, he saw fit to compose an ode to nitrous oxide in the lofty style of the era:

Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre fill'd
Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound
Yet are my limbs with inward transports fill'd
And clad with new-born mightiness around.

It was with this expansive soul that Wedgwood set about trying to make good on his father's promise. Together, Wedgwood and Davy coated insect wings and leaves with silver nitrate, laid them on various surfaces (paper, white leather and glass being favorites) that had been treated with chemical compounds, and then exposed the entire assemblage to the sun. These experiments did indeed bring about results, but the fixed images faded quickly -- much, one imagines, like the intoxicating mood around the Pneumatic Institute.

From the smiles of Renaissance portrait sitters to the laughter of a genius, photography was associated with pleasure from its earliest stages. But many years lay ahead before this union could be called complete.

written by David Lindsay

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